It took becoming Black to realize that I was racist.
Over the last five years, discussions of racial injustice and inequity have reached a peak moment, mirroring the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. And while these discussions are just as polarizing and contentious as they were in the 1960s, it is more common to hear white people ask their Black friends how to be a better ally or how to be "anti-racist." I find this to be a curious phenomenon because it seems to assume that all Black people are uniquely qualified to answer these questions because they all have ample experience hating themselves and have unlearned that hate. This is like asking Michael Jordan how to be a good cricket player – the question assumes Michael Jordan has expertise or experience in playing cricket simply because he’s an athlete. Being anti-racist, in my experience, is like learning any new skill: there needs to be a genuine interest, an openness to learning, a sacrifice of time and resources, and a commitment to put into practice what you have learned. And like learning a new skill, the best teacher has experience – in this case a racist who becomes anti-racist. Since it may be difficult to find a teacher who fits this criterion, I thought I would share my journey of becoming an anti-racist in hopes that it helps you too.
Start with yourself.
You may look at me and see a Black man, and question what I know about being racist to Black people. Well, I haven’t always been black.
I was born and raised in Nigeria, a country without "Black" people. Nigeria doesn’t report any demographic information based on skin colour or race. Instead, it reports its demographics based on ethnicity and religion. So, quite literally, there are no Black people. There are, however, hundreds of different languages and ethnicities, with four acknowledged as dominant. Islam and Christianity are the dominant religions. Like race in North America, ethnicity and religion are directly related to socioeconomic power. In Nigeria, I knew myself as an Igbo-speaking Nigerian of Christian faith, groups with high socioeconomic and political power. In Nigeria, I knew nothing whatsoever about being Black.
When I came to North America, I was pre-conditioned to discriminate based on class and religion, not by race. I hadn’t connected the relationship between poverty and Blackness or race. I typically associated with people and families who "valued" education and avoided those who didn’t. Knowing that education is inversely related to crime and poverty, I believed I was choosing my company wisely. Associating myself with others who I thought were more likely to value education – which I gauged by their educational attainment – unwittingly resulted in my friend group being predominantly white. It also meant that I looked down at Black and Brown people. I justified my awful behaviour by saying to myself, "If I can be a minority immigrant who grew up in poverty and who spoke with a thick accent on arrival and could somehow make something of myself, what excuse do they have? They’re just being lazy." All this rationalization was based on my assumption that North American educational systems functioned as a meritocracy. I didn’t question the overrepresentation of Black people portrayed as criminals in film and television – or the underrepresentation of Black people portrayed as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals for that matter. I failed to examine how this imagery shaped my worldview. Put bluntly, I had racist views, whether or not I knew it at the time. I had to take ownership of that. Regardless of the colour of your skin, you probably have these views too. Own it.
The first step is accepting that you have work to do. You may think, "I’m not a racist, so why is this so hard?" It is hard precisely because you have not realized that you have been or are racist somehow, or you are refusing to come to terms with it. You are likely not being overtly racist, but we all hold biases and these biases mean that our words or actions can be inherently racist, whether we mean it or not. But when inherent racism is suggested, white people can get defensive – and, with good reason. White people are often attacked and assumed to be the sole perpetrators of racism, and this is unfair. White people do not have a monopoly on racism. Fair or not, it does not mean that you should not take ownership of your racist proclivities. It is an essential first step.
Understand the facts.
I spent most of my adolescent years believing that there was something inherently dangerous and wrong with Black people raised in North America. I wondered why there was such a negative perception of Black people and why I seemed to share the same negative views. Upon brief reflection, I realized that I knew little aside from what I saw on television and what was told to me by others who consumed the same media. I repeatedly heard that Black neighbourhoods were more impoverished and riddled with crime. This was supported by the evening news, which primarily covered stories of crimes committed by people of colour, specifically Black people. As I became more aware, I was increasingly troubled by this and looked to validate my observation. Though data was limited, I found a report in the Journal of Communications reporting that between 1995 and 1996, TV portrayals of Black people committing crimes outpaced their actual crime rate by 16%; while portrayals of whites and Latinos were 7 and 16% lower than actual arrest rates, respectively. For the first time, it showed me that my opinions – and everyone else’s for that matter – may have been false.
I started looking for information on incarceration rates by race, both at home and abroad. What I found was deeply troubling. It seemed that North America, particularly the United States, had an affinity for disproportionately arresting and imprisoning Black people. This continues to be the case. For example, according to the Department of Justice, the United States incarceration rate in 2018 was 450 per 100,000, with roughly one-third of those incarcerated being Black Americans. This was nearly triple the Black population rate at the time. Conversely, white Americans only made up about 27% of those detained, nearly half the white population rate.
I wanted to understand, so I compared this to Nigeria (where, from an outsider’s perspective everyone is "Black") and found the incarceration rate to be just 34 per 100,000. This is a significant discrepancy that I thought might have been the result of vastly different cultures and legal systems, so I also looked at Canada, where the laws and culture are similar enough to the United States. But there was still a noticeable difference – between 2001 and 2017, Canada had an incarceration rate of 117 per 100,000, nearly one-fourth of the rate in the United States.
Looking into this further I learned that the United States had for-profit prisons owned by publicly traded companies. Put another way, there is a monetary incentive to imprison people. Learning about this incentivization system offered me clarity: Black people are not inherently dangerous. The assumptions I had were based on the results of a prison industrial complex where it is a lot easier to arrest and imprison those who are disadvantaged in order to use them for profit. I had to acknowledge that I had it all wrong.
The prison industrial complex is just one element of a broader system that is built to oppress and disadvantage people in order to uphold the power of dominant groups. Understanding the facts about how race is built into the legal system, education, and the job market, is an important step on your journey.
Understand that you are them, in some way.
When I first came to North America, I staunchly rejected being labelled as "Black" or "African American." There was something very sinister about accepting it, though I could not describe why at the time. I eventually discovered, regardless of my social standing in Nigeria or whatever societal standing I thought I had achieved as a doctor, in North America I am a Black man, a label that comes with specific implications and a predetermined position in society. For example, despite being a board-certified physician, who dresses the part, many patients have assumed me to be a custodian when I entered their clinic or hospital room.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I was Black, and ironically, anti-Black. Like many of us, I was not being overtly racist, hurling racist slurs or hate. My racism was more insidious, rooted in my mindset. I expressed it by "looking down" at Black people and making assumptions without understanding the reality. Beneath it all, I believed that "Black" was inferior to African, and perhaps that is why I refused to identify with Blackness for most of my adolescent and early adult life. I knew what the Irish and Italians knew when they first came to North America: Accepting who you are – for me, accepting my Blackness – would mean that I needed to admit that my position in society was at the bottom. I feared being perceived as one of the "Black" people I saw on the evening news: uneducated, poor, and prone to crime.
It was a dreadful feeling. I was being racist to a group of people that I belonged to, causing harm to myself by perpetuating untrue stereotypes. Though somewhat comical, it was a feeling that was difficult to reconcile. If I was unknowingly awful to myself, it terrified me to think of other harmful behaviour I was potentially engaging in that was hurting those around me. To challenge this, I decided that I had to treat everyone as if they were me. I had to understand the struggles of others who are marginalized by society and fight for their freedoms and liberties too.
My desire to fight for Black people’s equality does not divorce me from my responsibility to advocate for gender equality or Indigenous people’s rights. I believe that all struggles for equality are about changing the same system and they need to happen together. It is far more work for each of us to fight for our own rights; for Black people to only fight for the rights of Black people. Equality for Black people will only come when there is equality for all genders, equality for the LGBTQ+ community, equality for Indigenous peoples, and equality for people with disabilities. There is strength in numbers, and if I want to see changes for myself, I need to be invested equally in all of these fights.
White people, more specifically, poor White people, need to reach the same realization. The battle for equality and justice affects them, too. Since inequity happens on the grounds of class and race, there are a lot of commonalities. Tackling poverty will be difficult for poor white people if they are not simultaneously trying to tackle poverty for poor people of colour. Trying to do it alone requires far more energy and limits the amount of influence you have. Ultimately, our own freedom can only come when we see ourselves in others and understand their freedom to be our freedom.
Pay your dues.
Being a good member in any group generally involves payment of dues, and this is no different for allies. Being a good ally is often costly, and it is this cost that limits most people. The price may be too high. I do not mean this in a monetary sense though. For example, speaking up and advocating for anti-racism may be unpopular depending on where you work. Advocating for something that not everyone believes in means you may risk isolation from your peers who do not share your sentiment. You may lose out on that promotion because someone in a position above you now sees you as a liability. If you’re a business owner, sharing your views or taking a stand for a movement may send customers the other way. You may lose friends and family – take Prince Harry, for example, one of the most powerful people on earth who lost his family and his title when he supported his Black wife against racism in the royal family. Though painful, paying these dues is necessary – transformative change cannot occur without sacrifice.
Being an ally is uncomfortable. From my experience, it is uncomfortable because you are starting a journey with no idea where you will end up. You may be scared to discover that you are not who you thought you were, and accepting that is hard. You may be overwhelmed by the amount of learning you need to do to have opinions that are not built on false assumptions and bias – it’s a feeling akin to giving a presentation on a topic that your audience knows more about than you do. You may fear judgement from others, and you may fear losing your position in society. You may worry about the price tag of transformative change.
This uneasy feeling is how love feels. It feels vulnerable to involve yourself in a situation that is not guaranteed. In this position, you give everything and expect nothing in return, with the hope of being accepted by "the other." It will be ugly and messy, but it will also be eternally fulfilling and make life worth living. To fight for justice and equality for others is to love. To paraphrase Dr. Cornel West: "Justice is what love looks like in public."